"It's a trip back in time. Twenty years ago, this is how I felt – and I still do," The Cure's frontman, Robert Smith, declared as he took to the stage at Wembley last night. While the past two years have seen comebacks from artists ranging from Led Zeppelin to Prince to Take That – as well as this year's much-anticipated return of My Bloody Valentine – they have all had both an air of nostalgia and a whiff of commercial gain to be had. But for The Cure, playing their first British concert in two years, there will be no deluxe edition reissues of old classics; rather, a 13th studio in progress and due for release this year.
At one of the band's gigs in the 1980s or early 1990s, you would not have been able to move for Robert Smith copyists. These days, the number of thirtysomethings in the audience sporting eyeliner, wild hair and black garb can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The Cure's fans have grown up, although they still anticipate many of the songs before a chord has been played, with appreciative roars and singalongs.
Smith, however, despite the fact he is nearing his 49th birthday, looks much the same – tangled jet black hair, ghoulish whitened face, eyeliner, smudged red lipstick and charming, boyish dance moves. The Cure, formed in 1976, were among the inventors of the goth look and there is something unmistakably immortal about the band. Indeed, their classic songs such as "Friday I'm In Love" and "Close To Me" sound as fresh tonight as when they were first released.
The line-up has changed often over the years but appears to have settled on one which at least looks like the original – including the guitarist Porl Thompson, with his heavily lined eyes and black coat, and bassist Simon Gallup. Both still look the part and have been members since the late 1970s.
Smith, of course, has never been much of a talker on stage, and prefers to let the band's music speak for itself. Over an epic set lasting more than three hours, the total number of songs seems to stop just short of his age. The Cure take us on a journey through their back catalogue, surging and plunging and soaring again from euphoric pop to the existential despair that marked their early albums Pornography and Disintegration. Early in the night, the menacing riff of "Prayers For Rain" sets a mood of darkness, the dense guitars overridden at one point by Smith belting out an incredible sustained note – at once making that despair so much more powerful and inspiring awe from the crowd. "Love Song", written for his wife Mary Poole as a wedding present nearly 30 years ago, really pulls the heartstrings, while "Pictures Of You" (which Smith precedes with the quip, "We're going to play a country and western song") has that same potency.
"Lullaby" – their highest charting single to date – follows, with Smith's shimmering Oriental guitar style sounding like a mandolin, and a pulsing backbeat from the drummer Jason Cooper.
A trio of more upbeat, though angsty, pop songs – starting with "Friday I'm In Love" and moving into "Inbetween Days" and "Just Like Heaven" takes the crowd to a new lighter mood.
Tonight is not about nostalgia. It may be a treat for an audience of long-standing Cure fans but band have enough great songs to ensure their immortality.